Homing in on “honing in”

Normally, Thornwalker does not recommend the use of dictionaries based on Merriam-Webster’s infamous Third New International Dictionary. It was that dictionary that deprecated standards of usage in favor of occurrences of usage.

Nevertheless, in their usage notes (and in their differentiations among synonyms) they sometimes supply useful and interesting information. In the case of the misuse of hone in for home in, they supply the evidence that this misuse has been in the works for a rather long time.

In Merriam-Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (copyright 1965), the entry for the intransitive verb home is virtually identical with that shown below. There is, however, no corresponding entry for hone in.

From Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2000):

home vb homed; homing vi (1765) 1: to go or return home   2 of an animal: to return accurately to one’s home or natal area from a distance   3: to proceed to or toward a source of radiated energy used as a guide <missiles ~ in on radar>   4: to proceed or direct attention toward an objective <science is homing in on the mysterious human process —Sam Glucksberg> ~~ vt: to send in or provide with a home

hone in vi [alter. of home in] (1965): to move toward or focus attention on an objective <looking back for the ball honing in —George Plimpton> <a missile honing in on its target —Bob Greene> <hones in on the plight of the common man —Lisa Russell>
usage The few commentators who have noticed hone in consider it to be a mistake for home in. It may have arisen from home in by the weakening of the \m\ sound to \n\ or may perhaps simply be due to the influence of hone. Though it seems to have established itself in American English (a mention in a British usage book suggests it is used in British English too), your use of it esp. in writing is likely to be called a mistake. Home in or in figurative use zero in does nicely.

EDITORS NOTE: I must wonder just how common this “weakening of the \m\ sound to \n\” is, and it is that kind of consideration that will make “Brambles and Thorns” an ongoing project. After all, we also find that the \n\ sound sometimes seems to have been working out, so that it gets pumped up into the strong \m\ sound, as in the migration of pompon (or pom-pon) to pompom or pom-pom.


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